It is so appropriate that the Fool card in the Tarot is numbered zero: it seems like there is not much there, but what it does is change the shape and meaning of everything that is around it.
Mathematically speaking, the invention (or discovery, if you prefer) of zero is vital for the place value system of numerals. We are so used to the place value system (often called Arabic numerals) that we have trouble imagining how difficult it was to do even simple mathematics with previous systems. Have you ever tried doing division with Roman numerals? (What’s XXXVI divided by IX?) It goes beyond a simple unfamiliarity with Roman numerals: they’re just harder to work with because they encode information differently. Each numeral can require multiple steps simply to understand its value, because the numeral encodes information in a pattern similar to the way we count up or down to a number using lots of different reference numbers. The place value system, by comparison, uses only powers of ten as a reference, and thus goes much more directly to the exact value we want to work with. Additionally, because the information about reference numbers is encoded in a digit’s location within the number, we can do neat tricks like multiplication and division using the very layout of the number itself to guide our work, which is impossible with Roman numerals. The difference is due to zero.
All of the simplicity of the place value system of numerals depends on being able to have empty columns: we have to be able to tell 306 apart from 36, or 400 apart from 4. Zero is what makes that possible, which allows the simplicity of the place-value based system. The necessity of emptiness is counter-intuitive in a counting-based system, because it’s very uncommon to start counting with zero. This is precisely why it’s so fabulous and important that the Tarot begins counting this way – beginning from nothingness, which is a step that is necessary for other kinds of being and order to emerge.
But zero isn’t just about zero – it is connected to infinity, and this made it controversial when it was first introduced to the Western world; we’ll touch on this more when we discuss the World card.
This mathematical background is why I like to think of zero as symbolically holding space for potential to develop. I suggest that when we see the Fool in a Tarot reading we think of it as a similar placeholder – not just a void, but a space open to possibilities and change, a space made gravid by virtue of its emptiness.
Occupying the space of emptiness is something that we do need to do from time to time. Emptiness is when we seek to reset ourselves, or open ourselves to be able to receive something new. Emptiness is the place we start from at the beginning of a journey, which is how the Fool is usually depicted. At times that kind of zeroing out can even be great fun, such as I tried to invoke in the foolish ritual I wrote.
But foolishness has always had deeper implications, especially links to the idea of the sacred fool, or the holy wisdom of foolishness. (Laurie R King has written good fiction exemplifying this idea, for anyone who is interested.) One way to think about it is that the fool is a mirror, reflecting back the world around him, allowing others to see themselves in different ways. But achieving this kind of emptiness can be heartbreakingly difficult and dangerous. Exercising this nature of the fool for any long period of time is not a lighthearted endeavor at all, as Lear’s fool should show you.
Out of the difficulties of attaining Foolishness comes the possible reading of a warning: look out, the dog is trying to pull you back, be careful that you don’t run over a cliff. The danger arises when we mistake illusion for emptiness. There is a wonderful depiction of this in the Mystical Cats Tarot, where the Fool is thinking of herself as seated on a cushion drinking milk, and thus completely unaware of what’s going on around her. This kind of empty-headedness is not true openness but rather a covering-over of her surroundings which leaves her unable to deal with whatever is actually happening in the world around her. The work of emptiness, just like any other work worth doing, is not easy, even if it appears so at first.
From a mathematician’s point of view, the requirements and dangers of zero make it the perfect metaphor for beginning such a challenging sequence of ideas and archetypes as the Major Arcana. The Fool, as card 0, represents a state of emptiness that is the necessary precursor to other kinds of wisdom.